Francis Turretin’s Ecclesiology, 18.17: The Primacy of Peter

Seventeenth Question: Was Peter an ecumenical pontiff and the head of the church and the vicar of Christ? We deny against the Romanists.

I mentioned previously that question 16 was indirectly about papal primacy, but with question 17 we embark upon a series of questions that address that issue directly. As you no doubt gleaned from what you’ve learned about Turretin thus far, as well as from his posing of the question above, things are unlikely to go well for il Papa.

To begin, however, Turretin characteristically wants us to be entirely clear about what he is and is not arguing. For starters, you will have noted that the question is posed with reference to Peter. The logic is that if Peter is unable to claim primacy then the Pope, as the apostolic successor of Peter, is similarly unable. To be clear, Turretin is not arguing that Peter has no sort of primary whatsoever. He seems willing enough to grant Peter a certain sort, or certain sorts, of primacy. He clarifies that “the question does not concern any primacy, either of order and calling or of age, or of dignity and gifts. For we do not deny that this primacy can belong to Peter” (18.17.2; my emphasis) and, consequently, to the Pope (at least potentially). No, the question is not about primary as such, but about a particular kind of primacy—“the primacy of authority and jurisdiction” or

whether there was an degree of authority and jurisdiction in Peter above the other apostles by which he was constituted an ecumenical pontiff, the vicar of Christ and head of the church, with the most absolute power, so that individual believers and the apostles themselves . . . were bound to submit their heads subject to him. (Ibid)

In other words, if you’ll allow me a paraphrase, Turretin’s concern is to deny to Peter the sort of primacy that the popes of early modern Europe claimed, and that others claimed for them (Turretin adduces a particularly nice quote to this effect from Bellarmine, perhaps unsurprisingly).

Turretin gives eight reasons against this sort of primacy before addressing some of the knotty biblical passages that folks like Bellarmine claimed against his arguments.

  1. The rank of apostle is the highest in the church, which means there can’t be a pope who is higher. Furthermore, and here Turretin repeats a prevalent Reformed trope, the apostolic office was temporary and does not admit of succession. (18.17.3–4)
  2. Not only is the rank of apostle the highest in the church, it is a rank held in equality by a group of individuals rather than by a single individual. Turretin dips into a number of biblical passages, such as the selection of Matthias, to demonstrate “that authority belonged to the whole body, not to any private person—or to Peter in particular” (18.17.5).
  3. Further in this vein, the account of the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 does not paint a picture of Peter as possessing superior authority and jurisdiction. Even though he is an important voice in this council, it is clear that he does not legislate at this council or issue its decree on his own singular authority. Rather “if to any of the apostles the decree is to be ascribed, it belongs rather to James than to Peter” (18.17.6).
  4. If you look at Paul’s writings, you find him insistently maintaining that he did not require support by the authority of the other apostles and / or of Peter. He says that they recognized each other’s legitimacy, and entered into fellowship with one another, but that’s all he concedes. (18.17.7)
  5. Then there’s Paul’s rebuke of Peter recounted in Galatians, of course. Paul maintains that Peter misbehaved, which is not what you would expect of Christ’s vicar. Furthermore, Paul’s was not a gentle rebuke. That is, it hardly sounds like the sort of thing that an inferior would be permitted to do to a superior. Besides, those who argue the Pope’s supremacy do not allow him to be rebuked in any way, so that argument is a nonstarter. Turretin summarizes: “If . . . Paul could rightly rebuke Peter, yet no one can rebuke an ecumenical pontiff, it follows that Peter was not such” (18.17.9).
  6. I’m surprised that Turretin didn’t treat this point earlier since it’s a bit of a smoking gun (for folks who accept the traditional views on the NT canon). In 1 Peter 5, Peter counts himself as one among many of the church’s elders and admonishes said elders not to exercise authority in a domineering manner. Remarks Turretin: “Far be it from us to say that Peter did what he so zealously forbids in others.” Of course, on Turretin’s view, the Pope routinely does what Peter here forbids. (18.17.10)
  7. Hey, if it’s so important that Peter and his successors be recognized as the vicars of Christ, and of the see of Rome is so ridiculously important, don’t you think there’d be something written down about that from Jesus or in the Bible or something? (18.17.11)
  8. Finally, Turretin adduces quotes from a number of church fathers in support of his position, as is his wont. On this question, his authorities are Cyprian, Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose, and Gregory of Nyssa. (18.17.12)


At this point Turretin dives in to Matthew 16, which contains the bits about Jesus building his church on a rock and giving out power to “bind” and “loose.”

Turretin opens by pointing out that this passage should be read allegorically, and then moves on to argue that it makes no sense to call Peter the rock on which the church would be built because in 1 Corinthians 3:11 it clearly says that Christ is the church’s only foundation. Peter, being a member of the church, cannot also be its foundation. Turretin admits that the declaration is spoken to Peter, but it isn’t about Peter. He paraphrases it thusly: “Thou Peter shall be called by me the rock, which thou hast confessed, upon which I will build my church” (18.17.13). In other words, the rock is the confession, not Peter himself.

At this point Turretin circles back to the allegory (or, if you prefer, typology) bit to make the point that whenever Scripture talks about rocks, it’s really talking about Jesus. He even has a quote from Augustine reading the critical passage in this manner:

Therefore, thou art Peter and upon this rock, which thou hast confessed, upon this rock, which thou has acknowledged, saying, thou art the Church, the Son of the living God, I will build my church, upon myself I will build, not myself upon thee. (18.17.15)

The particularly fascinating thing is that Turretin even has a quote from Torquemada, the infamous Grand Inquisitor of Spain (of whom some would have you believe that it was impossible to talk him out of anything): The church is founded upon a rock, i.e., the faith of Christ.” Now, before you decided to spend a great deal of time parsing which sort of genitive we’re dealing with here, Turretin points out that “the thing amounts to the same whether we understand by the rock Christ himself or faith in him. For this is to be viewed not so much subjectively with respect to itself, as objectively with respect to Christ, whom it [i.e., the subjective genitive] embraces” (18.17.16).

Next we come to the bit about keys and binding / loosing. Turretin takes a basic Protestant line here by understanding this with reference to teaching and gospel proclamation to be exercised in a ministerial rather than dominating fashion. But, most relevant to the issue at hand: “although something is promised here peculiarly to Peter, still nothing peculiar is here promised him” (18.17.18). In other words, Jesus tells Peter he’s getting keys, but Jesus never says only Peter is getting keys; all those who proclaim the gospel have said keys.

The final passage that Turretin spends significant time on is John 21 and the “feed my sheep” business. Turretin argues that this isn’t about authority and jurisdiction because “it is one thing to feed, another to govern” (18.17.19).

Well, once again Turretin has worn me out. I hope that at least some of you, gentle readers, have made it this far with me. I’ll conclude with the simple observation that Turretin’s treatment of this question has further entrenched his view that the government of the church is artistocratic rather than monarchial.

See you next time.


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